DSLR Buyer’s Guide

I’ve seen – and repeated, and believe to a big extent – the photographic maxim that it’s not the gear that matters. But that statement should always have an asterisk next to it, because sometimes gear does matter.* If you’re shooting with a point-and-shoot camera or a camera phone and realizing that A: you’re really enjoying photography, and B: you’ve started to hit some frustrating limitations with your current gear, you’ve probably given some thought to buying a DSLR or compact interchangeable lens system. As with the other guides that I’ve put out this week, the SLR guide (which you can also apply to Micro 4/3) has less to do with brands than with the questions it’s helpful to ask – sometimes of yourself, sometimes of the person at the camera shop – before you buy.

Do You Already Own an SLR? If you shot in the film days and still have a brace of lenses, it may be worth sticking to the same mount. Of course, there are caveats: if you used Pentax, Nikon, or Leica, more of those lenses will fit the manufacturers’ current models without adapters than the others. If you used Minolta (whose later AF lenses fit the Sony Alpha mount), Canon (who changed mounts in the 1990’s) or Olympus, your mileage may vary… some lenses will fit, while others will require adapters. Not all lenses will work perfectly on all cameras; you may lose autofocus or metering, for instance. But being able to use older lenses on a new body can represent a significant savings.

What Can You Spend? Start here. What you’re willing or able to spend is going to determine quite a bit else. If you’re budgeting for lenses along with the camera and something’s got to give, go cheap on the body, not the glass, and you’ll thank me later. Once you’ve figured out your price range, you can narrow it down to a set of bodies that fall within those price points.

What Category of SLR? Here, we’re talking about types rather than brands. Broadly speaking, your choices break down to entry-level, consumer, “prosumer” and professional, in addition to the usual divide between full frame or crop sensors. Because a camera is consumer-grade doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to get consumer-grade photos out of it; a number of factors, including the quality of the lenses you put on the camera, and the skill level of the person behind the camera, will do just as much to determine that as will the body.

That’s also not to say they’re all the same. Each step up in a manufacturer’s lineup adds something that the camera “below” it didn’t have. By way of an example, let’s do a cursory comparison between the Nikon D5100 and the Nikon D7000. The 7000 has a larger, heavier body that’s sealed better against the elements, and uses more metal in its construction. It also has a built-in AF screw, more manual controls, dual card slots, better battery life… I could go on, but I think you get the point. A similar comparison between the entry-level D3xxx and the consumer D5xxx would reveal similar differences. Figure out the specs that matter to you, and buy accordingly. And don’t worry if your next-door neighbor shoots with a “better” camera (unless he offers to pay, in which case, he can be as opinionated as he’d like); after all, you’re the one who’s going to be using the thing.

New or Used? If you can find a used camera with a low to moderate number of actuations (clicks), it can represent a significant savings over buying new. A body that’s two to three (or more) generations old can run a fraction of the cost of something newer, and as long as you’re buying from a reputable seller (that is to say, a local shop and not Craigslist or eBay), it should be a safe buy. Used equipment is also good for someone who’s just dipping a toe in the waters, or just doesn’t feel like plunking down hundreds/thousands more on a newer model. The trick to buying an older body is to know what improvements have been made in technology since the model you’re looking at was last on the shelves. Each generation brings improvements in ISO, image quality, and other parts of the feature set, and knowing the differences between models allows you to make an intelligent decision on the kinds of tradeoffs you’re willing to make.

How are the Reviews? Go to a well-trafficked forum (dpReview, Canon Rumors, Nikon Rumors and the like) or a review site like Amazon, Adorama, or B & H, and check out the reviews for the most recent models within the price points you’ve chosen. If a camera has several good, and well-substantiated, reviews, you may have something worth a closer look. Conversely, if you’re seeing a lot of negative reviews overall, or certain issues with the camera, take those into consideration. Once you’ve narrowed it down to a small handful of models, you’re ready to go further in depth on your research.

How’s the Ecosystem? If you’re married, or have ever thought about marriage, you’ve probably heard it said that you don’t just marry someone, you also marry their family. That also, in a roundabout sort of way, applies to cameras. You’re not just buying a camera body, after all; you’re buying a “family” of lenses and peripherals (speed lights, GPS dongles, video microphones, and lots more) to go with it. The investment in glass alone can – and likely will – run you at least as much as the cost of the body, if not much, much more.

And the lenses are more important, in a sense, than the body. Remember, the technology in your camera will become obsolete at some point. That doesn’t mean won’t still make photos (and very good ones). But you may find that in a generation or two, you may want to upgrade your body. Lenses, if you choose them carefully, don’t become obsolete; they hold their value much better (at least in the case of OEM lenses, though some aftermarket lenses retain value well).

If you’re buying a used body, you can usually find a good, and inexpensive, used kit lens. Your other alternative is to pick up a 35mm f/1.8 or 50mm f/1.8 as your first lens. On one hand, you don’t get the convenience of a zoom lens. On the other, however, primes are great learning tools, in addition to being great for creativity and shot discipline. They’re also sharp, inexpensive, and fast. You’ll appreciate the flexibility you get in low light, or in isolating subjects with shallow DOF, that you won’t get to the same degree with a zoom unless it’s a very expensive zoom.

Examine the Guts:  The person at the big box electronics store is probably going to lead with the megapixels. They’re the least of your worries. A higher megapixel count has its places, but also its problems. Higher MP counts mean larger files, which mean slower write speeds if the camera’s processor is poky, and also means that you’ll find yourself running out of drive space that much faster. If you’re trying to decide between two versions of the same camera (say, a T2i and a T4i), pay attention to the processors as well, since changes in the processor can mean better stills and videos, quicker write speeds, et cetera.

How’s the Build Quality? Although SLRs mostly share a very similar form factor — pentaprism or pentamirror atop a body that accepts lenses of varying types and sizes, usually with a grip of some sort — there are variations (some subtle, others not) in how those things are implemented, and how it all fits together. See if the body is metal or plastic; if it’s a bit of both, see how it’s deployed, and how the camera feels in your hands. If the camera has a built-in flash, see where the flash is relative to the lens. A test shot with the flash (with the zoom racked out to its longest reach) is helpful to see if the lens casts a shadow.

Controls – what you’ve got and how it’s laid out – also matter a great deal. Just remember that generally, more manual (more knobs, buttons and dials) means more money. The upside is that it can also mean fewer headaches, since those external controls give you the option of changing settings at eye level versus having to explore menus every time you want to change something. Even if the camera has more controls than a small aircraft, I’d still suggest that you go into the menu and see how easy it is to find and change the settings you use, or think you’ll use, the most often. You can and should familiarize yourself with the manual, but a good menu layout is vital when it comes to being able to change something quickly and still get the shot.

Ready for Your Closeup? Take test shots under as many conditions as you can. You’re looking at two things here: the camera’s performance while you’re shooting, and the photos that come out as a result. The one caveat I’m going to add before you get started: whatever lens you plan on using at first – a kit lens, a 50mm f/1.8, an 18-200mm – use that for your test shoot. You don’t want to put a 60mm macro on the camera to test it, and then go back home and shoot with an 18-55mm. You want the photos to look like they’d look as you would shoot them.

Now let’s get down to brass tacks. In terms of performance, how quick and accurate is the autofocus system in low light? In normal light? How about with a low-contrast subject (like a white box against a white background)? How’s it feel in your hands? How quickly is it writing files? How smooth is the zoom? How well does it handle close focusing? Is the viewfinder bright and easy to use for manual focus? Is the LCD sharp and clear, even in bright light? If you plan on using the video feature seriously, make sure you also put the video features through their paces.

Next, take a long, hard look at the images. How accurate is the auto white balance? How sharp are the photos? How’s the default exposure? Is the camera’s color rendition pleasing? How well does the camera handle the noise from high ISOs? If you’re going to a local camera shop and you don’t have to buy that day, bring some memory cards with you if you’ve narrowed it down to a couple of finalists. Format, shoot, and check them out on a monitor. Don’t forget that this is all about capturing your vision, so it’s all about what looks pleasing to your eye.

A Few Thoughts in Closing: Remember that you’re not done just because you’ve picked your camera. You’ll also want to consider the following:

  • Spare batteries: I strongly suggest a battery from the camera manufacturer, especially if you’re buying new.
  • Memory Cards: One for the camera, plus one spare (or one per slot if the camera has dual card slots, plus spares). Avoid Class 2 cards, and stick to class 6 or class 10, especially if you plan on shooting video or doing a lot of burst shooting.
  • Case: You’ll need some protection from the elements, and room to put other “stuff” (like the items listed above) so it’s all in one place. There’ll be a case buying guide in this space tomorrow.
  • Strap: I know, your camera probably came with one. You want to hear the one thing that pretty much any photographer — die-hard Nikonian, ardent Canon fan, Sony partisan, etc. — can agree on? Ask them about the straps that came with their cameras. They’re uniformly scratchy and uncomfortable. Don’t do that to yourself, especially if you’re going to have it around your neck for any length of time. There are much better options, from the pricey but lovely Black Rapid to straps by MOD and Crumpler (the latter is my personal favorite, especially if you’ve got heavier glass on the end of your camera). Your neck will thank you.
  • Support: If you’re shooting with an SLR, I’d suggest investing in a tripod or monopod before putting money into additional glass. Even a mediocre tripod beats the best image stabilization system if you use it properly. Just don’t be stingy spending on a tripod. Yes, you can get one at a flea market for 25 bucks… and that $25.00 “investment” is all that’s going to be between your expensive gear and the pavement. Think about it.
  • Cleaning Equipment: I’ve written elsewhere about cleaning supplies for cameras, and rather than belabor the point here, I’m just going to suggest you check out that article:

There are other doohickeys and gadgets to go with your camera… speedlights, ring lights, reflectors, macro tables, backdrops, extension tubes, teleconverters, and lots, lots more. However, if you take the stuff above into consideration and choose carefully, you’ll have built the foundation for a solid kit, and a hobby — or an obsession — that you can spend a lifetime learning and perfecting.

*For why the gear doesn’t matter, read this. For why it does, kinda, read this. Then take an aspirin, which you can probably find here. The first two links are my takes on the “gear doesn’t matter” argument, and that last one’s an Amazon affiliate link. Your purchases through that link help keep The First 10,000 going. Thanks!

**Incidentally, if you don’t want to spring for a new camera strap yet, consider a seatbelt cover. It’s not the most attractive option, but it’s cheap, effective, and surprisingly comfortable. If you end up with a pair, use the other one for the shoulder strap on your camera bag if that’s not already padded.

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